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Trauma Queens

Barbara Bensoussan

When most of us picture an EMT, the figure in our imagination is young and male. But that mental image may need some tweaking; hundreds of EMTs today are sporting sheitels, and some of them are bubbies. How did this growing trend begin, and what’s it like to be a frum and female EMT?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ten-year-old Penina T. was dressed and ready for Shabbos, hanging around the bungalow while her mother fiddled with the knobs on the decrepit country stove, preparing to set up her Shabbos hot plate. The burner refused to light, so she turned up the gas and held the match to the burner again. Suddenly, in a big whoosh, a ball of fire jumped out at her, singeing her arms and face.

“It was terrifying!” Penina says. Her round blue eyes are wide at the memory. “There we were, ten minutes before Shabbos, and my mother had just gotten this huge burn. Right away somebody called my Aunt Miriam, who’d just completed her EMT training, and she ran over and just took charge right away. She treated the burn, created instant calm, and everything fell into place just in time to light Shabbos candles.”

Penina never forgot it. “I was so impressed!” she says. “I thought, ‘My Aunt Miriam can do anything!’ That entire summer, whenever anybody had an emergency, they called Aunt Miriam, from a bad fall off a bike to getting a hand stuck under the sharp lid of a tuna can.”

Aunt Miriam was such an inspiration that twenty years later, Penina herself became a certified emergency medical technician, or EMT. But Penina’s not alone; in Brooklyn alone there are an estimated 300 frum, female EMTs. Tonight, five of them have gathered in Penina’s spare, neat dining room in Kensington to share their experiences with those of us who haven’t had the opportunity or inclination to get involved in such heroic pursuits.

It’s a charmingly diverse group of ladies. Penina’s a Flatbush mother and teacher, quietly passionate about her EMT work; Yocheved Lerner is a baalas teshuvah from the Midwest with strong-looking arms and a husky voice, who spent fourteen years riding in ambulances until her daughter was born. Aliza, still single, is a sweet and enthusiastic Australian expat. Last to arrive are Suri Katz and her friend Leah S. from Boro Park, elegantly dressed chassidic women with such refined bearing that one would never guess that, over thirty years ago, they were the first frum women certified as EMTs in Brooklyn, not to mention the first to train others.

How did these otherwise unassuming ladies come to pursue an EMT certification? Penina, of course, was inspired by her aunt. “But I was always interested in medicine,” she says. “Women are natural nurturers — of children, of the elderly — so it’s an extension of our caregiving. In our communities, we have large girls’ schools where there are sometimes no men, or almost no men, on the premises. It’s empowering to know what to do if an emergency arises in these situations.”

“I always wanted to be a nurse,” Suri Katz avers. “But in those days, and in our circles, it would have meant going to college, and it wasn’t allowed. So when a friend of mine called and said a course was being offered in emergency medicine for frum ladies, I jumped at the opportunity!”

That course, the very first one, was organized by her friend Leah’s father, Reb Yitzhok Shlomo Hoffman. Originally from Pupa, he settled in Williamsburg after the war.

“In those days, there was no Hatzolah, and ambulances took forever to arrive,” Leah says. “My father was always getting involved in helping people in crisis. I remember one Friday afternoon there was a car accident, and he was the one who went with the injured person to the hospital even though the child’s father was also there. Then there was the time a twenty-month-old stopped breathing, and my father began speeding the mother and baby to Maimonides Hospital, telling the mother the entire time, ‘Keep blowing air into the baby’s mouth! Keep giving her breaths!’ By the time they got to Maimonides, the baby began crying — she was breathing again.

“He saved a lot of lives, even without any formal training,” Leah remembers. “He kept a boy alive who’d been run over by a car and had arterial bleeding, by pushing down on the wound. When Hatzolah organized, he got involved with them as well for quite awhile.”

But in the early days of Hatzolah, Reb Yitzhok Shlomo thought perhaps a separate EMT corps should exist of women who could assist other women with specifically female matters like childbirth. He lost no time going about setting it up: he found an instructor, put an ad in the paper, and about forty women — Leah, Suri Katz, and Penina’s Aunt Miriam among them — showed up in Williamsburg for training. That group, formed thirty-one years ago, was the original core of Brooklyn’s frum women EMTs. When Hatzolah adopted an exclusively male policy, these women found other uses for their skills.


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